Authored by Nigel Allison
Dharamsala isn’t a place you’d forget in a hurry, and neither is waking to views of the Himalayas each morning for five months. Truly a city in the clouds, this Indian market town is known as the home of the Dalai Lama, and is the location in which the 14th Dalai Lama sought refuge after fleeing the uprising against the occupation of Tibet by China.
While trekking and climbing don’t usually top my list of reasons to travel, it’s easy to see how the vast mountain range inspire others like Austrian mountain climber Henrich Harrer, motivating an almost obsessive compulsion to conquer the most challenging landscapes in the world.
Seven Years In Tibet is a 1997 film which chronicles the true story of Harrer (Brad Pitt) who became friends with the Dalai Lama at the time of China’s takeover of Tibet.
The storyline follows Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) as they set out on an attempt to climb Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth highest peak. Bad weather and an avalanche prevent their first attempt at reaching the peak. Arrogant and stubborn, Harrer wants to summit on his own but is overruled by Aufschnaiter.
The start of the Second World War further hampers their efforts to complete the climb, and it is seven years before Harrer would return to Germany (there were orders to arrest anyone who held German citizenship caught on British soil). Together with his expedition team, they are held as Prisoners of War in India, though eventually do escape. Harrer and Aufschnaiter eventually find their way into Tibet – the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Among the many lessons portrayed through this film, Harrer learns that speaking some of the local language and dressing appropriately goes a long way towards fitting in. Understanding a culture and not imposing your way of life are crucial lessons for any traveler. A community’s way of life is a slowly evolving and sacred thing (not liable to change that much in the two weeks that you visit).
Experiencing the the generosity and kindness of the Tibetan people firsthand, the audience watches an inspiring personal transformation as Harrer leaves his ego behind and learns not to take anything for granted – how many of us have then felt the difficulty of remembering these humbling lessons when we return to where we call home?
From afar, the young Dalai Lama observes this ‘yellow-haired’ Austrian who sneaks into the Tibetan capital and asks to meet him. He enlists Harrer’s help to build a cinema, and meets with him everyday. A strong teacher-student bond is formed in the process; Harrer reveals details and cultural insight from the Western World he came from, and the Dalai Lama shares teachings about Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. Both characters embody the drive so many travelers feel to get out and explore the world around us and discover foreign cultures so different from our own.
Despite a fairly woeful attempt at an Austrian accent, Brad Pitt’s interactions with the curious Dalai Lama are fantastic – it’s a seven-year personality transformation condensed into 140 minutes, and is captured perfectly, right down to the Dalai Lama’s eager curiosity still sharp at an old age.
There is no better story which highlights conquering the parts of our personality that make us arrogant and self-centered, and no better way to achieve this than setting sights on the highest mountains in the world. And what better place to learn such important lessons than that of the Himalayas – the home to the Dalai Lama.
Tibet is still a country under occupation and while I was in Dharamsala there were regular reports of self-immolation protests by monks in Tibet. It’s horrific and difficult to fully comprehend just how deep that struggle goes; to an outsider though, Tibet is clearly a place where politics, religion and culture are still so key to helping define a country and its people.
To me this is a film about opening your eyes to the world and letting everything in. There are many people whom I’ve met along the way who have inspired me on my travels and opened my eyes to different parts of the world. For Harrer, this was the Dalai Lama. Who has changed yours?
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Featured Photo CC Paul VanDerWerf.